What Not To Read While Watching “Stranger Than Fiction”

Augusto/Agstya Meets His Maker

Heen says:

I think it was a friend of my father’s who once said to me, “I don’t watch films any more because I always mix them up with films I’ve seen before.” He didn’t mean that he mixed them up afterwards in his memory, he meant that while he watched them, his previous film memories got in the way and he couldn’t follow the plot properly. This didn’t happen when he read novels, however, and he continued reading literature till his death a few years ago.


I mention this because lately I’ve found that I mix up films, books, dreams and reality all the time. I talk to the characters in a film while I’m asleep and I rewrite novels incorporating events from films. Let me give you an example.


I’m currently reading an excellent novel by Upamanyu Chatterjee called “English, August”. It’s about a young Indian civil servant in a provincial town who seeks ways to relieve his boredom. The main character, Agastya, is cynical and urbane; his interests are sex, marijuana and classical literature. He’s Bengali but he could be Spanish, Russian, Australian or Vietnamese. I’m about half way through this book, and yesterday I watched the film “Stranger Than Fiction” (directed by Marc Forster and starring Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson). Really, there is nothing remotely similar between this film and the book I’m reading, but I kept finding myself grafting bits of the book onto the story line of the film.


Stranger Than Fiction was another of those films I never got round to seeing when it came out a couple of years ago, but I caught up with it recently and enjoyed watching it. Until Agastya Sen and the Indian civil service crept into it and nearly spoiled everything, that is. In the film, a character in a novel has come to life and realises he is just that, a character, whom the author is planning to kill. His life is pretty boring, so maybe he wouldn’t mind half as much if he hadn’t met Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is definitely worth not dying for. Now, the personality of Agastya is deeper and richer than Harold Crick (Ferrell), and it shouldn’t be beyond his powers to win Maggie’s attentions, but hang on, this is Harold, not Agastya. Ana (Gyllenhaal) falls for Harold when he plays Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World” – a song which surely suits Agastya more than Harold. I mean, where could Harold have ever heard this song before?


My confusion was compounded by another literary interference, and I’ll have to backtrack a bit here. Remember the Somontano Monkey? He’s still alive and well, thank you for asking; you may recall his philosophy was heavily influenced by the Spanish thinker and writer Miguel de Unamuno who wrote, almost 100 years ago, a novel called “Niebla” (“Fog”) in which, guess what, a character in a novel realises he is a character in a novel and goes to see the author to sort out his life. Now, the Somontano Monkey, in His wisdom, made it perfectly clear to me that Stranger Than Fiction isn’t “the film of the book”; the similarities in the plot are there (and after Googling around, it would seem that a lot of people have remarked on them already so I shan’t bother) but the way the story finishes, in the film and the book, reveals how different they actually are.


There is a film version of “English, August”, directed by Dev Benegal in 1994. I daren’t see it, in case I become irremediably confused. Or maybe I already have, yes, that would explain it…


Does anybody remember the name of the character in “Niebla”? Yes, that’s right – Augusto Pérez. At this stage it should come as no surprise to find what “Agastya” translates as in Spanish. So Agastya Sen is, in actual fact, a creation of Miguel de Unamuno! We have come a complete circle. Emma Thompson is probably writing this blog!








One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Shrew on January 10, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    All you say is true. Unamuno was a big fan of Will Ferrell, and wrote Niebla thinking of him as the actor to play the part of Augusto. He imagined the film to be directed by Dev Benegal, and set in the village of Colungo. History doesn’t repeat itself, it just sets down guidelines that we all have to follow. In this sense, we are all characters in a book that has already been written.


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